Last week, I had the chance to catch up with Shawn Ku, the director of new Nic Cage vehicle A Score to Settle. A few days after our chat, our nation had another mass shooting… and then another… and we can’t seem to break this awful cycle. Interestingly, Ku made a film inspired by the shooting at Virginia Tech and we discussed that film, as well as A Score to Settle. We discussed how the experience of both the shooting and the film has affected his subsequent work and his life. So, without further ado, he is my brief but thoughtful chat with the young, talented filmmaker…
Shawn, thanks for talking to us. Before we dive into the film, let’s start with you. You’re an actor, producer, director, choreographer, and the list goes on. Can you let us know how you got into the industry?
How I got into the industry – that is an interesting question. Way back when I was living in New York I was a chorus boy, and a friend and I went to see an independent film down on the Lower East Side. We came out and thought, “we can write something as least as bad as that.” It was just childish bravado. I remember asking my agent about screenplays, since I had never really seen or read screenplays that carefully. I got a bunch of screenplays from him that were being made at the time and started to study them, then we wrote a script. Soon after that, we were meeting with a producer and a director and we were taking notes. That movie never got made, but I thought “huh maybe I should go to film school.” I think before I tested that I thought that maybe I should work on a film a little bit and I Second Second AD’d on something. I went to film school and that was that.
In theater, I directed something little benefit sketches that the Broadway community does and then was sort of my entree into directing and conceiving of ideas as well as writing a little bit. It sort of evolved from that moment.
So, now, we’re here at the precipice of your new film, can you tell us how A Score to Settle came about?
I don’t know the beginning origins of it, but the script came to me through one of the producers, Erik Gozlan. It was a story that he really plugged into as a father. I really connected to it as a new father and it was a passion project of his that we got to Nic [Nicolas Cage] who was inspired because of his feelings as a father.
I think we, as parents, all struggle with these feelings of how much time we devote to our children and how much time we have to spend away from them to make money. I think that’s a constant struggle and the moments you lose your temper, the regrets we have from something as small as that and to something as big as what Frank is dealing with the relationship with his son. That’s my understanding of the origin, I don’t know much farther back from that. As an independent film, we struggle to find financing for it and get talent attached but luckily we were able to make this movie.
The film stars Nic Cage, who is a personal favorite of mine. How’d that come about and what was it like to work with such a legend?
Working with Nic Cage – he’s just Nic Cage. He’s just such a huge presence in film and everything. It was amazing. We sent the script out to him and, you know, just crossed our fingers. Then when the producers called me and told me that Nic wanted to meet, I picked my jaw off the floor and said yes. It’s amazing. He is so committed, especially to this story, because he did connect to it very deeply. He’s a professional; he knows his lines inside out, backwards and forwards, upside down. He knows everyone else’s lines. He comes to set ready to work and is so excited and committed. It was inspiring to work with him and it definitely inspired everyone in the crew. We had a fast schedule and we were definitely working hard. He made that all possible.
Nic is known for his extremely powerful and emotional performances, but you’re no stranger to emotional stories in your work. Your 2010 film was inspired by your connection to the horrible Virginia Tech shooting. Can you tell us a bit about that experience and that film?
Yes, it’s so sad to talk about now since just yesterday there was another shooting. I guess that [the Virginia Tech shooting] was sort of fairly early on in this phenomenon that we have all these shootings all the time. My parents went to school at Virginia Tech; they met, they married, and my sister was born while they were there. It was very surreal when that shooting happened because he was Asian and I am Asian as well. It was a surreal experience and I think it was the biggest shooting at the time, if not still. I was just moved to explore that idea, and at the time also I seemed to find that parents of shooters sort of disappeared off of the face of planet. They just went into hiding, understandably so, and didn’t do any interviewing. I thought about what it must be like to be that, and I tried to empathize with the shooter in what way I could and what it would be like for my parents. The story came out from those thoughts, and sadly we are still there and still experience these things left and right.
How has that experience impacted your subsequent art and life?
I definitely, with this film in particular, struggled with what my responsibility is as a filmmaker in terms of this story with gun violence: Am I promoting anything? Do I feel like I am exploring something and not sensationalizing? I hope we did that because I think the lead role and mixed role of Frank definitely struggles between his past and his present and his violence and his love as a parent, but love in general. I think that explores, hopefully slightly, what we struggle with as human beings in our society – the need for revenge and the need to try to move on and live your best life. I think it feels, oddly enough, a basic human struggle that we clearly are still struggling with today.
Tonally, the new film is much different than that one, notably it’s an action thriller. What was it like working on this type of film, what prepared you for this challenge?
Wow, that is a good question. I was excited to work on film of a different genre. I feel like it’s hard; it’s kind of a character piece as well and that definitely felt comfortable. I like exploring the human psyche. That sounds like a silly way to say it. In the end, the action-y pieces are just choreography on one level or another. I just approached it that way. I think, with a film, you approach it like life – it’s one day at a time, it’s one scene at a time, it’s one line at a time and I think you just have to build the movie in your head that way. You just go with the magic that comes your way with all the other people working in this film in the process.
The film releases Friday, you must be pretty pumped. Is this one of the biggest films you’ve been a part of? What are your hopes for the film?
My hopes for the film are really what anyone hopes [laughs]. I just hope that people watch and are looped in by it and enjoy the experience – be it cathartic or exciting or what. That’s all that I can hope – is that people see the movie and are moved by it in some way.
What’s next for you?
I wrote a movie that I am not directing that’s actually being shot right now for Netflix. That is on the immediate horizon and I have been busy doing rewrites for them on that and still am actually today. That is as far as I can see right now.
There is another film that I have that I also wrote for another director to be shot in Mexico, so hopefully that happens this year. The odds are pretty good that it will happen and, you know, we just go with one project at a time.
How can folks follow what you’re up to?
They can’t – I am a terrible social media person [laughs]. I don’t tweet, I’m not very good at that. I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. I will do my best.
Thanks, any final thoughts to share before we go?
If there is anything to ask you can ask me and follow up.